And Quiet Flows the Sarayu

WITH the initiation of the actual construction of Ram Mandir on the ruins of the Babri Masjid, and that on the first anniversary of the imposition of the longest – and still continuing – period of brutalization of the lone Muslim majority state in India, the temple town on the bank of Sarayu has been given a fresh coat of political saffron. It is being projected as the most prominent 'national' symbol of a proud and powerful Hindu Rashtra that has just won back the alleged birthplace of ‘Bhagwan Ram’ from the clutches of 'foreign invaders - turned - internal enemies'. But this is a fake image, superimposed on the real face of Ayodhya and photoshopped to suit the Sanghi project of falsifying history in order to serve their present agenda. To rediscover the real face and the true spirit of Ayodhya, one must travel a short distance back in time.  

Storm Centre of First War of Independence

The princely state of Oudh/Awadh, well known for its very fertile land, was annexed by the greedy British rulers in blatant contravention of existing treaties in 1856 (the interested reader may see a detailed description of that mischievous process in Marx's article The annexation of Awadh, published in New York Daily Tribune, May 28, 1858).

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was then exiled to Calcutta on pension while his second wife Begum Hazrat Mahal and underage son were left behind in Lucknow. When in May 1857 the native troops of East India Company rose in revolt, Hazrat Mahal proclaimed her minor son as king, assuming power of administration on his behalf as Regent. From Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar proclaimed Mughal imperial recognition of this move, giving a major boost – if only symbolic – to the legitimacy of the king and the Regent. The local talukdars swore allegiance to the minor king and Hazrat Mahal, who pledged war against the British till death. She personally led the rebel sepoys on the battlefield and her bravery, courage and determination was a great source of inspiration to them.

The rebellion of the Indian soldiers – themselves "peasants in uniform" who came from and remained closely connected with (largely Hindu) peasant families – immediately led to an uprising of all sections of peasants groaning under the new, post-annexation land revenue system. A major reason why Ayodhya became a storm centre of the rebellion was that it was one of the main catchment areas for the Bengal regiment, supplying some 75000 men to the army.

The peasants were not alone. They were joined by talukdars, many of whom had their estates confiscated, craftsmen who had lost out to British machine products actively promoted by the new rulers, and so on. In addition to shared economic ruin, the pent-up anger of Muslims as well as Hindus against what they perceived as attacks on their religion and culture, also helped build the broadest popular mobilization for liberation from foreign bondage, with peasant-sepoy armed struggle at its core. Vast swathes of Indian people, across caste boundaries (including Ruhelas, Bundelas, Jats, Gujjars, Pasis, Mughals, Rajputs, Brahmans, Pathans, Satnamis, Bahavis, Kols and other tribal people (who did not then identify themselves as Hindu or Muslim), joined hands to fight British rule. Intellectuals of the uprising included Azimulla Shah, author of India’s first national song: "We are its masters/this Hindostan of ours."  

After initial successes, the freedom fighters were overpowered by British forces, who recaptured Lucknow in March 1858. Scattered fights went on, often in the form of guerrilla warfare. Hazrat Mahal, closely pursued by the enemy, managed to move rapidly from place to place thanks to support of the common people as well as the talukdars, both predominantly Hindu. The long journey across forests and rivers ended in Nepal, where she took political asylum. When in 1858 Queen Victoria issued a clemency proclamation to appease the people of India and douse the fire of rebellion in their hearts, Hazrat Mahal issued a counter proclamation, in her capacity as Regent Queen in exile. She reminded Victoria about the many instances of promises betrayed and urged the people not to trust the British. She was also personally requested to come back to India on a British pension, but turned down that offer too. In 1879 she died – penniless but head erect – in Kathmandu.

Among the most illustrious leaders of the uprising hailing from Ayodhya, mention must be made of Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah, a Sunni Muslim from an affluent family. Erudite and widely travelled in India and abroad, the “Lighthouse of Faizabad” authored a pamphlet, titled Fateh Islam, calling for a jihad against Britishers well before the eruption of revolt in 1857. This led to his arrest, but he came out when with the outbreak of the rebellion the doors of the Faizabad jail were thrown open.

Ahmadullah immediately joined the insurgents and was elected the Chief of 22nd Infantry Regiment. Ably assisted by Subedar Ghamandi Singh and Subedar Umrao Singh he won the famous Battle of Chinhat in June 1857 and successfully repulsed attacks on the city of Faizabad for nearly one year. He carried a bounty of Rs. 50000, in silver coins, on his head and for this hefty sum of money he was betrayed and murdered by a Zamindar named Raja Jagannath Singh.

The annals of Hazrat Mahal and Ahmadullah, like those of Laxmi Bai, Nana Saheb and many others, tell us how Hindus and Muslims fought shoulder to shoulder in our first war of independence. But it would be naive to assume that communal relations in those days were totally free from occasional tensions and conflicts. In a very perceptive piece titled 'Mid-19th Century Communal Tussle in Ayodhya Has a Lesson for Today's Awadh', Saiyid Zaheer Jafri, Professor of History at the University of Delhi, draws our attention to “the complex dynamics of conflict and co-existence between Hindus and Muslims in India, especially in the Awadh region”. To illustrate his point, Professor Jafri tells us a real-life story showing how enmity was transformed into solid camaraderie against the common foe. Here is a short excerpt; with words within square brackets inserted by us mainly for making the excerpt shorter.

“Months before the annexation of the kingdom of Awadh in February 1856,” writes Jafri, “the Hanumangarhi episode at Ayodhya created much bitterness not only among the two principal communities of the state, but it also led to the widening of the sectarian gulf between the Shias and Sunnis. The dispute related to the alleged desecration and demolition of an old qanati masjid [a make-shift, camp-type mosque, usually with a shamiana for a roof] … within the premises of Hanumangarhi. The present structure of Hanumangarhi stands at a site which was donated by Nawab Abul Mansur Safdarjung, the second nawab of Awadh kingdom to a bairagi (hermit). The successors of the bairagi enclosed a much larger area, including an abandoned Qanati masjid, over which Muslims of the area lay claim. The bairagis ultimately demolished the masjid during the nawabi era itself.

“After the refusal of the administration to help [re-]build the mosque, a call for jihad was given [by Syed Ghulam Hussain. Sunni Muslims responded in large numbers but Hussain, a Sunni, was killed by the bairagis. A larger mobilisation was then built up [by Maulavi Amir Ali, a pirzada of Amethi] to rebuild the demolished mosque and to protect the other mosques … .[But Ali too, along with his followers, was killed by the forces of the East India Company and some Rajput taluqadars … . Now it was Ahmadullah who started preaching for jihad. Following his arrest and release, as noted above, Hindus and Muslims of Faizabad chose him as their leader.]

“On assuming leadership, Ahmadullah Shah reportedly issued orders for the destruction of the temples of Hanumangarhi. But [soon] he retracted the orders [because] now he was the leader of the people of Awadh, as well as the sepoys, Hindus and Muslims both. [In the battle of Chinhat, they] overpowered the British forces, who retreated to Lucknow.

“This is indeed an important turn of events – somebody who visited Faizabad to avenge the death of Maulavi Amir Ali and to rebuild the Hanumangarhi mosque was … chosen as the joint commander of Hindu and Muslim sepoys. … Perhaps this entire episode brings out the deep-rooted and strong nature of the elements of composite culture of the region. …

“The events around the Hamunangarhi incident should remind the people of Awadh and elsewhere the shared past of conflict and cooperation between Hindus and Muslims and sects within Islam. It should also remind us of the temporary nature of communal and sectarian divides and of the fact that those divides can be avoided in favour of larger ideals of anti-colonial struggle, pluralistic values and also a peaceful co-existence.” (From The Wire, 06/Sep/2018, retrieved 12.08.20)

Professor Jafri could not be more accurate. Bhaichara (brotherhood) even in troubled times has always been a natural instinct of the people in Ayodhya. When after annexing the princely state the British authorities tried, with some success, to foment communal discord, Baba Ram Charan Das and Achhan Khan, a local landlord, convinced their respective communities to reach an understanding whereby both Hindus and Muslims would offer their prayers in designated areas within the mosque-temple compound. For this ‘crime’ and for supporting the uprising, they were hanged together on the Kuber Teela on 18 March 1858, the day after the British recaptured Faizabad. But the communal harmony they championed lived beyond them. For nearly a century – that is up to December 1949 – devout Hindus and Muslims continued to practise their religious rites in the designated areas within the same compound.

Hunting Ground of Hindutva Hounds

All that began to change in the communally charged atmosphere of pre-partition India. In early 1947 Mahant Digvijai Nath (President of UP unit and National General Secretary of Hindu Mahasabha) Swami Karpatri (a sanyasi with political ambitions, who would found the Ram Rajya Parishad a year later) and K K Nair aka Kandangalathil Karunakaran Nair (one of the many hard-core communal elements in the Indian Civil Service, at that time District Magistrate of Gonda) came together in a yagna arranged by Maharaja Pateshwari Prasad Singh, head of the princely state of Balrampur. It was from this grand constellation – a top leader of Hindu Mahasabha, a political sanyasi, an ICS officer and a feudal lord big enough to be called Maharaja – that the hitherto vague idea of ‘liberating’ the Ram Janmabhoomi started taking the shape of a cold conspiracy.

However, the process gained steam only after Nair was transferred to Faizabad district in June 1949. He immediately got down to the nasty business in cahoots with Guru Datt Singh, city magistrate of Faizabad, who became his close confidante in no time. Their first move was to forward a petition submitted by a group of local residents, seeking permission for the construction of a grand temple at the Ram chabutara, to the state government. In reply the higher-ups asked Nair to send in his report and recommendations on the matter. Under instructions from Nair, Guru Datt Singh visited the spot and submitted his report to Nair, saying:

“... I … inspected the site and enquired all about it in detail. Mosque and the temple both are situated side by side and both Hindus and Muslims perform their rites and religious ceremonies. … There is nothing on the way and permission can be given as Hindu population is very keen to have a nice temple at the place where Bhagwan Ram Chandra Ji was born.”

Singh’s report went against the verdict passed by Faizabad sub-judge Pandit Hari Kishan Singh in December 1885 on a similar petition of the mahant of the chabutara, which was under his ownership. The judge in his wisdom said:

“This place is not like [any] other place where the owner has got the right to construct any building he likes … . If a temple is constructed on the chabutara at such a place then there will be the sound of bells of the temple and shankh when both Hindus and Muslims pass from the same way and if permission is given to Hindus for constructing a temple then one day or the other a criminal case will be started and thousands of people will be killed.”

It was easy to see that this was a very valid and farsighted judgment, but Nair refused to see it. He just forwarded his recommendation based on Singh’s report to the state government. But the latter was not prepared to take any risks. So the plot for getting the thing done smoothly, and bypassing the courts, got stuck. However, the plan, deliberately leaked to the townspeople, made Nair a darling of the Hindu Mahasabhaites. In particular, the DM was seen frequenting the house of Gopal Singh Visharad, head of the Faizabad unit of the Hindu Mahasabha and a close aide of Mahant Digvijai Nath. And the secret talks held there led to a new plot for a violent coup in place of the failed administrative coup.

So on the night of 22-23 December 1949, Abhiram Das accompanied by more than 50 people trespassed into the mosque by breaking open the locks of the compound and also by scaling the walls. The lone constable on duty protested, but no one cared. The muezzin (one who delivers the azaan) Mohammed Ismail woke up and tried to resist. He was beaten up and made to flee. As Awadh Kishore Jha (a cousin of Abhiram Das) later recounted, Nair himself was present in the mosque before 6 o’clock in the morning, directing Abhiram – who held the idol – and others present about how to spread the message of the divine appearance of Ram Lala. The fanatics placed the idol inside the mosque, erased the Islamic carvings and scribbled sketches of Ram and Sita. As arranged, a thousands-strong crowd gathered there raising religious slogans and singing kirtans, early in the morning. The minorities were forcibly deprived of their right of access and worship.

On hearing the news, an anguished Nehru instructed the UP Chief Minister GB Pant to get the idol removed. The instruction was formally passed on to the Faizabad DM, but the latter refused to comply on the grounds that it would lead to communal clashes. Both Pant and Sardar Patel allowed the stalemate to continue. Gopal Singh Visharad, presumably in consultation with Nair, used this opportunity to move a local court and get a stay, in January 1950, on the government order for removal of the idol. This supplied the Congress governments in the state and at the centre with a pretext for inaction: what could a government do on a matter that was sub judice?  

The role of Nair was sharply criticized by the Allahabad High Court in the land title suit in 2010. The judgment referred to a letter written by Kripal Singh, SP of Faizabad, to Nair on 29 November, 1949. Singh informed that he visited the premises and saw several ‘Hawan Kunds’ (places or large utensils where the sacred fire was lit) all around the mosque. He ended the letter with a warning: "There is a strong rumor that on purnamashi the Hindus will try to force entry into the mosque with the object of installing a deity”.

A letter like this would have prompted any DM to order preemptive measures for maintaining peace and status quo. But Nair not only sat on the report, he straightaway denied the facts mentioned in it. In a report he prepared after the so-called 'appearance' of the idol, he wrote that the “news came as a great surprise as it had never been reported or suspected that there was any move to enter and occupy the Masjid by force”. As the court pointed out, the “surprise” was a false pretence because the SP had warned about precisely such a possibility well in advance.

Such extreme communal bias and conspiratorial activities on part of an administrator was not acceptable even to Panth and Patel. Following a brief tussle with the government, Nair was compelled to retire from service. Later, as the RSS and Jan Sangh expanded their network in UP, he along with his wife Shakuntala, already a Hindu Mahasabha activist at the time of take over of Babri Masjid, joined that bandwagon. In 1967, Karunakaran and Shakuntala (the latter had already been elected to the Lok Sabha in 1952 and later elected to the UP Legislative Assembly, in both instances on Hindu Mahasabha tickets) were elected to the Lok Sabha on Jan Sangh tickets.

Nair has been accorded due recognition by both the Mahasabha and the RSS. Just on the eve of the ground-breaking ceremony on 5 August, The Organiser in its 1 August 2020 issue carried a report praising Nair’s role in 1949 titled 'Unsung Heroes of Sri Ram Janmabhumi Movement'. It informs us that a memorial is being built in his home village in Kerala, under the aegis of KK Nair memorial charitable trust, on land donated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.  

Fascism as Majoritarian Revanchism

The atrocious annexation of the iconic mosque in 1949 was but a sequel to two tragic events that marred the dawn of Indian Independence: the Partition and the murder of Gandhi. The next big event that shook the nation – the political vandalism of December 6, 1992 – is too well-discussed to merit recounting. The RSS or its ideological camp followers are implicated in all these catastrophic events. But we cannot end this discussion without saying a word or two about a few persons who combined intense religiosity with sincere communal amity.

One of them was Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans Das, the then chief of the Hanumangarhi temple and President of the Ayodhya unit of the Mahasabha. To paraphrase from Professor Jafri's piece cited above, during the curfew imposed after 6 December,1992, he tried wholeheartedly to ensure the security of and uninterrupted supply of ration to Muslim households. He did campaign for building a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, but he is reported to have said to his disciples: “I want the Ram temple to be built at the site where Babar had unlawfully erected the Babri Masjid, but my temple will not be built over the blood of a single Muslim.” The Mahant’s six-decade-long friendship with Hashim Ansari, the main litigant and his opponent in the Babri Masjid case, is legendary. They used to go to the court in the same rickshaw and shared a cup of tea during breaks even though they were fighting a bitter case over Ayodhya.

We also cannot forget Baba Lal Das, Pujari of the Hanumangarhi temple (before he was removed by a BJP state government) who was a bitter and outspoken critic of VHP and RSS. Not unexpectedly, he was murdered in 1993.

The subsequent episodes of the Masjid-Mandir imbroglio were played out not in Ayodhya but on the larger theatre of national politics; so in this article we shall only indicate the main thread of political developments that has brought the temple town to its presumptuous present in a bitter mockery of its glorious past.

The competitive Hindutva of 1980s – the one-upmanship between the Congress under the Gandhis and the Sangh parivar in playing the Hindu card (which was a not-so-strange bedfellow of the Indian version of neoliberalism) – resulted in the catastrophe of December 1992 in a relatively short span of time. But the next step – fulfillment of the promise "Mandir wahin banaenge" (the temple shall be built exactly on that spot, i.e., where the mosque stood) was predicated on a total Sanghi domination over every organ of the state, including the Judiciary, and all the ideological- pedagogic apparatuses of the ruling class. Once that was achieved in 2019, it was almost a cakewalk for the mukhiya of the executive – with willing cooperation of the like-minded top boss of the Judiciary (who was soon to be rewarded with a post-retirement nomination to the Rajya Sabha) – to go ahead with temple construction at the very site where his party had razed a historic mosque to the ground.

With the 5 August Bhumi Pujan, what KM Ashraf in his day succinctly called "mazhab ki siyasi dukandari" (political trade in religion) evolved into a new stage: the politics of majoritarian revanchism. The ceremony marked a new leap in the evolution of Hindu supremacist nationalism, or simply Indian Fascism.

And yet, the legacy of all those who battled the British together and embraced martyrdom together in 1857, the heritage of people like Madari Pasi, an oppressed caste leader of the Eka (Unity) Movement of 1921, and the message of mutual respect and love conveyed by Pujari Lal Das, Ramchandra Paramhans and Hashim Ansari continue to live on in the memories and thoughts of the Ayodhyavasi. And quiet flows the Sarayu, the silent chronicler of Ayodhya – the real Ayodhya – its past, present and the unseen future.

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